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Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt
Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen, Winner of the 2010 Goldziher Prize, The Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College
Runner-Up for the 2005 National Jewish Book Award in History, Jewish Book Council

Hardcover | 2005 | $69.95 | £58.95 | ISBN: 9780691092720
312 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 2 halftones.
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What was it like to be poor in the Middle Ages? In the past, the answer to this question came only from institutions and individuals who gave relief to the less fortunate. This book, by one of the top scholars in the field, is the first comprehensive book to study poverty in a premodern Jewish community--from the viewpoint of both the poor and those who provided for them.

Mark Cohen mines the richest body of documents available on the matter: the papers of the Cairo Geniza. These documents, located in the Geniza, a hidden chamber for discarded papers situated in a medieval synagogue in Old Cairo, were preserved largely unharmed for more than nine centuries due to an ancient custom in Judaism that prohibited the destruction of pages of sacred writing. Based on these papers, the book provides abundant testimony about how one large and important medieval Jewish community dealt with the constant presence of poverty in its midst.

Building on S. D. Goitein's Mediterranean Society and inspired also by research on poverty and charity in medieval and early modern Europe, it provides a clear window onto the daily lives of the poor. It also illuminates private charity, a subject that has long been elusive to the medieval historian. In addition, Cohen's work functions as a detailed case study of an important phenomenon in human history. Cohen concludes that the relatively narrow gap between the poor and rich, and the precariousness of wealth in general, combined to make charity "one of the major agglutinates of Jewish associational life" during the medieval period.


"This book will undoubtedly be required reading for anyone interested in the study of poverty and charity, both in medieval Islam and in the Jewish tradition. Because its source material is so exceptionally rich, it can be argued that it is also an important contribution to the understanding of non-European premodern charitable institutions. The lucid presentation of the material, especially the translated documents in the companion volume, make this work very useful for undergraduate and graduate students."--Yossef Rapoport, International Journal of Middle East Studies


"Cohen has made the first comprehensive book-length attempt to study the subject of poverty in a premodern Jewish community. This book is an important contribution."--Miriam Hoexter, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

"Cohen's book constitutes a significant contribution both to the study of the Jewish world of medieval Egypt and to the study of poverty and charity in medieval society generally."--Amy Singer, Tel Aviv University

Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Note xiii
Introduction 1
Chapter One: A Taxonomy of the Poor 33
Chapter Two: The Foreign Poor 72
Chapter Three: Captives, Refugees, and Proselytes 109
Chapter Four: Debt and the Poll Tax 130
Chapter Five: Women and Poverty 139
Chapter Six: "Naked and Starving," the Sick and Disabled 156
Chapter Seven: Beggars or Petitioners? 174
Chapter Eight: Charity 189
Chapter Nine: Conclusion: Poverty and Charity, Continuity and Acculturation 243
Bibliography 253
Index of Geniza Texts 271
General Index 278

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